How Logic Can Help Save a College Student’s Faith

“I’m a liberal, pacifist, atheist, and if you don’t like it, you can leave,” the professor said as he began the first day of Renaissance history at the University of Colorado. Joni Raille, who grew up in a conservative Christian home, was taken aback and wondered what her professor’s bluntness had to do with Renaissance history. I asked her if she ever considered dropping the course. “No,” she replied, “I can learn from anybody, even if he is an atheist.”

A few days later, Joni’s professor began speaking of religious changes within European Christian culture. He wrote a Bible verse from the Gospel of Matthew on the board. “How many of you are Christians? Raise your hand!” Joni felt singled out. But she, along with four other students, raised their hands. The professor probed further. “How many of you read the Bible everyday? Keep your hand up.” Joni kept her hand up. She was the only one. “What, are you going to be a nun or something?” Joni smiled, and politely said, “No.” The professor smiled back. “C’mon Joni, I think you would look good wearing a religious habit like a nun.”

Losing Their Religion

Some parents who raised their sons and daughters in the church fear that their student will leave the faith while in college. There is some reason for their fear. As Cathy Lynn Grossman wrote,

Seven in ten Protestants ages 18 to 30—both evangelical and mainline—who went to church regularly in high school said they quit attending by age 23, according to the survey by LifeWay Research. And 34 percent of those said they had not returned, even sporadically, by age 30. That means about one in four Protestant young people have left the church.

Bill Savage, distinguished senior lecturer in English at Northwestern University, sees no problem with students walking away from their narrow-minded faith. Savage wrote,

For the foreseeable future, loyal ditto-heads [conservative parents] will continue to drop off their children at the dorms. After a teary-eyed hug, mom and dad will drive their SUVs off toward the nearest gas station, leaving their beloved progeny behind.

And then they all are mine.

And as the late Princeton philosopher Richard Rorty said, “We try to arrange things so that students who enter as bigoted, homophobic, religious fundamentalists will leave college with views more like our own.”

In response to college students leaving Christianity, some have argued that the church must change its beliefs about issues like gay marriage to keep college students and young professionals in the pews. But if this thesis were correct, then mainline denominations that have already changed their doctrine and accepted gay marriage would be growing numerically rather than declining rapidly. According to the research of Christian Smith, published by Oxford, the most frequent reason given by students for leaving Christianity (32 percent of respondents) was doubt and intellectual skepticism.

Logic Is On Our Side

Stephen Guise left the small, evangelical Johnson Bible College in Tennessee to attend the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, to study business. He was required to take Philosophy 101. Stephen says that having a foundation of logical principles and Bible doctrine before entering the course helped him maintain his faith. The professor often played a Socratic role and allowed the students to discuss among themselves the issue of whether truth is relative or absolute. “The class was always exciting,” Stephen recalled. “I was the only outspoken believer in God, and so it required a little courage to speak up.” Stephen questioned his teacher, “Your statement, professor—’There is no absolute truth’—is that statement absolutely true?”

Many students find they don’t need to get into heated argument or even say much at all in defense of their faith. They merely apply the law of non-contradiction to criticism. Sometimes they ask a simple question of clarification. An agnostic professor might say, “When it comes to matters of faith or God, you can’t be certain about anything.” A student like Stephen may think, Are you certain about that? A professor of sociology will say, “The religious must accept the reality and goodness of gay marriage, because we can’t tolerate a lack of tolerance.” A student who knows the logical principle of non-contradiction may ask, “Why are you being so intolerant of intolerance?” An atheistic lecturer may say, “You should reject belief in God, because you can’t know anything is true unless it is scientifically verifiable, tested, and proven.” But has her theory been verified, tested, or proven? Was it proven in the lab? If so, when? Where is the data? Because if this professor’s statement is correct that her theory (which is really a philosophy) has not been proven in the lab—scientifically verified and tested—then why should we believe it is true?

Not By Logic Alone

C. S. Lewis was convinced that reason is on the side of Christianity. In his classic fictional work The Screwtape Letters, he describes a veteran, experienced demon named Screwtape who advises a young, naive demon named Wormwood on how to keep his patient (a Christian) out of God’s (the Enemy’s) hand:

Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. Don’t waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong, or stark, or courageous—that it is the philosophy of the future . . . .The trouble about argument is that it moves the whole struggle on to the Enemy’s (God’s) own ground. He can argue too. . . . By the very act of arguing, you awake the patient’s reason; and once it is awake, who can foresee the result?

Logic is a friend to people of faith and can be an aid for students to maintain their faith. But it is not the only factor in maintaining religious convictions. Joni, whom I mentioned earlier, was convinced that the grace of God preserved her relationship with Jesus. “In so many ways,” she said, “I really don’t know how I got out of college in one piece.” For Joni, her “logic flowed from her faith.” She cited G. K. Chesterton: “You can only find truth with logic if you have already found truth without it.”

Young believers who persevere in orthodox or traditional Christianity love God with all their intellect but also with all their heart and strength as they love their neighbors as themselves. The inward witness of the Holy Spirit convicts them of the reality of God when life gets difficult. Logic and reason are tools that can certainly help prevent our sons and daughters from leaving the faith. But the most important means of preventing your child from leaving the faith is pointing them to spiritual conviction of Christ’s grace.

  • David

    Yes, I believe logic and apologetics (presupp. apologetics) are useful primarily for Christians as our common sense is thriving on the root of faith. I also believe logic can be salutary in clearing an immediate way for the gospel, but logic can never ultimately convince because of the necessity to engage faith, for religious and non-religious alike, at the point of origin. (i.e., “What came first?”).

    I recently had a presupp. apologetic conversation with an atheist and he simply refused to admit that he did not know what came first. One cannot converse or convince such irrationality. So logic and apologetics are only potentially helpful in a context of evangelism when, what I call, the “idolatry of ideology” is not present. The idolatry of ideology cares nothing for common sense or sound logic.

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  • Caleb W

    A fine article, but we could do without the tired evangelical trope of the aggressively atheist/liberal professor out to prey on sweet, naive Christian kids. I teach at a big “secular” university and this is a terrible exaggeration.

    • David

      An English teacher at my alma mater said, “All Christians should be wiped off the face of the Earth.” And then proceeded to ask for a show of hands from whoever was a Christian.

    • David

      Unlike the other “David”, I must agree with Caleb. I have spent the last 34 years at two different public universities. The large majority of professors (though not 100%) of those “liberal, pacific, atheist professors” who are thought to be desiring to erase the faith of their students are actually just trying to get them to actually have good reasons to justify their beliefs. Unfortunately, when some Christian students have beliefs but little to undergird those beliefs, they become disillusioned with their faith.

      • Chancellor Roberts

        Who do these professors think they are to presume to force these young Christians to justify anything? Professors are there to teach the subjects they’re teaching and that’s ALL they should be doing with these students. Professors need to leave their personal beliefs and agendas at home!

        However, it is true that a great many Christian young people have not been trained in how to defend their faith, particularly in churches where things like “reason,” “logic,” “intelligence,” and being “intellectual” are treated as if they’re sins. Josh McDowell’s “Don’t Check Your Brains At The Door” should be mandatory reading for all Christians in their senior year of high school.

  • Robin Wootton

    I agree with David. I lost my faith in college. The debate was an excuse more or less. I had all these questions, but really I just wanted to live the way I wanted to live and got tired of having to rationalize my choices – from a Christian perspective or not. I remember going to Urbanna while I was in college and hearing Ravi Zacharias talk about this very thing and in my head I agreed with every word he said. I could even argue all these points with an atheist or agnostic at the time, but my heart and soul were quickly dwindling into apathy and bitterness toward a God who just simply didn’t fit in with what I thought a God should be. I would bet that engaging a struggling Christian in college with these logic debates more often makes for more despair or for a more dogmatic (read: annoying) Christian. at least in the short run.

    that’s just my two cents. I haven’t been in college for a long time now…

    • Alex

      So you think that every atheist is not open to your supposed claim? It’s not axiomatic that God exists. It’s a struggle for a lot of people.

    • Geoff

      “I had all these questions, but really I just wanted to live the way I wanted to live and got tired of having to rationalize my choices – from a Christian perspective or not.”

      This. Never lose sight of this when discussing this topic.

      If a professing Christian is losing/has just lost their faith in college, I would encourage people to ask the person who they are having sex with.

    • Alien & Stranger

      Came across this blog:
      I’ve noticed in people who’ve “fallen away” and turned their backs on the Lord, that usually there is a moral problem underlying the other reasons given. “My will not thy will” is the opposite of what Jesus prayed. “Dying to self” is the hardest part of following Christ. That is the narrow road once one has chosen the narrow gate of the cross.

  • Curt Day

    There are both professors of all political beliefs who use their lectures as a bully pulpit and there are those of all political beliefs who don’t. I am a Christian Fundamentalist and a political Leftist–Democrats are way too conservative for me. I remember when teaching a class on crime and terrorism that one of my students gave a leftist criticism of American Foreign policy and I challenged him on that. I challenged him not because of his views but because I sensed that he not thought out position and considered rationale and valid concerns behind the policies with which we both disagreed.

    So don’t think that all professors are looking to gun down the faith of our kids. But we also have to consider something else here. If we too tightly bind our political views with the Christian faith, and our kids start, for rational reasons, changing their political views, will they not also see the need to change their faith? We also have to consider what Robin wrote as well. Remember that when our kids attend residential campuses, their social horizons expand exponentially while their maturity levels and faith commitments may lag behind.

  • JD

    Teach at a college. A (now-retired) philosophy professor constantly spouted vitriol about Christianity.

  • Alex

    \\\\\\Joni, whom I mentioned earlier, was convinced that the grace of God preserved her relationship with Jesus. “In so many ways,” she said, “I really don’t know how I got out of college in one piece.” For Joni, her “logic flowed from her faith.” She cited G. K. Chesterton: “You can only find truth with logic if you have already found truth without it.”//////

    I don’t care which way you spin it. This is fideism

    • David

      Or it just means that the Spirit draws and keeps us without having to paint his face on the bathroom mirror. We cannot forget that the work of God through His Spirit is just as real, and more effective than, our own. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” We don’t have to scientifically prove our faith in order to justify it. If we have to embark to do so, we probably never had it anyway. It’s not that faith and logic oppose each other, the Spirit gives us a new worldview within which we reinterpret the facts we’ve always seen and come closer to the redeemed life He intended. If the Spirit does not empower our minds and hearts, we cannot have faith. Yes, the world speaks the truth of God’s creation, but only to those with the eyes to see the reality of it. Even the scientific proof has been reinterpreted by carnal minds to be nothing more than an evolutionary Godless process.

      • Chancellor Roberts

        God preserves those who are His, even if He lets them backslide for a time.

      • Christian Egoist

        Of course the Spirit draws and keeps us, but He does so by means of opening our eyes to the beauty of *true things* about God; The spirit does not make things true to us which would not have otherwise been true, but reveals to us the depth of glory in that which is true, causing us to trust it in a way that we otherwise would not (which is the proper role of faith).

        If I do not believe that Jesus was a real person, the Spirit will not be able to reveal the preciousness of the Gospel to me until I am convinced otherwise. If I do not believe that God exists, I will not have faith in any of His promises. The spiritual dynamics which you speak of are dependent upon the truth already being accepted or known. Faith is a response to the truth – not a replacement of it. One has faith in a rock-solid truth (like the promises of God). But that truth must first be established (via logic and other reasonable means) and then held as a conviction by the individual before he or she can exercise faith in that truth.

        To say that truth about God ought to be had first without logic is to say that truth about God ought to be primarily subjective and incoherent. That is not very glorifying to God.

        Rather, truth about God ought to be firmly grounded in objective reason (including logic), so that the believer is absolutely certain about His existence, His Gospel, His promises, and His plans. Only the soil of that rock-solid certainty can give way to the Spirit-nurtured faith which overcomes the world.

        Flimsy beliefs and loosely held subjective notions about God (i.e. “truth without logic”) do not honor Him and will not be used by the Spirit to produce the kind of faith which causes the believer to persevere.

  • Em

    “The large majority of professors (though not 100%) of those “liberal, pacific, atheist professors” who are thought to be desiring to erase the faith of their students are actually just trying to get them to actually have good reasons to justify their beliefs. Unfortunately, when some Christian students have beliefs but little to undergird those beliefs, they become disillusioned with their faith.” -David

    As a current college student (Anchor down!), I appreciate David’s comment and definitely agree. I think I came into college believing my professors would publicly belittle my worldview. I soon realized that they, truly caring about the development of my critical thinking skills, wanted me to defend my faith respectfully and thoughtfully and, furthermore, live consistently with that worldview.

    • Chancellor Roberts

      Sorry, “critical thinking” is post-modernist code for “question everything.”

      However, it really is essential to know what we believe and why we believe it.

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  • Steve

    “tired evangelical trope of the aggressively atheist/liberal professor out to prey on sweet, naive Christian kids. I teach at a big “secular” university and this is a terrible exaggeration.”

    Caleb, it is true that most professors are teaching their subject and doing it fairly and without bias, but that does not discount the fact there is a sizable group of college professors who are ranting against Christianity (see:

    Richard Rorty, which the article quotes, of the University of Virgina states, goes on to say:
    “we are going to go right on trying to discredit you in the eyes of your children, trying to strip your fundamentalist religious community of dignity, trying to make your views seem silly rather than discussable.”

    I also teach at a big “secular” college, and the overwhelming view is secular on campus. Some of this is the fault of Christians. We have created a secular and sacred divide that truly doesn’t exist. We need to heed the words of Charles Malik:
    “The greatest danger besetting American Evangelical Christianity is the danger of anti-intellectualism. The mind as to its greatest and deepest reaches is not cared for enough. This cannot take place apart from profound immersion for a period of years in the history of thought and the spirit. People are in a hurry to get out of the university and start earning money or serving the church or preaching the Gospel. They have no idea of the infinite value of spending years of leisure in conversing with the greatest minds and souls of the past, and thereby ripening and sharpening and enlarging their powers of thinking. The result is that the arena of creative thinking is abdicated and vacated to the enemy. Who among the evangelicals can stand up to the great secular or naturalistic or atheistic scholars on their own terms of scholarship and research? Who among the evangelical scholars is quoted as a normative source by the greatest secular authorities on history or philosophy or psychology or sociology or politics? Does your mode of thinking have the slightest chance of becoming the dominant mode of thinking in the great universities of Europe and America which stamp your entire civilization with their own spirit and ideas?

    It will take a different spirit altogether to overcome this great danger of anti-intellectualism. . . . Even if you start now on a crash program in this and other domains, it will be a century at least before you catch up with the Harvards and Tuebingens and the Sorbonnes, and think of where these universities will be then! For the sake of greater effectiveness in witnessing to Jesus Christ Himself, as well as for their own sakes, the Evangelicals cannot afford to keep on living on the periphery of responsible intellectual existence.” (The Two Tasks).

    Thanks, Dave, for posting an insightful article.

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  • Greg

    Just FYI, Johnson Bible College (Now “Johnson University”) is a Church of Christ school that is pretty openly aggressive about works righteousness and baptismal regeneration – “evangelical” means a lot of things but I’m not sure that’s one of them…—Vision—Values/Statement-of-Faith.aspx

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  • Chancellor Roberts

    Yet, within so much of evangelical Christianity, reason is practically a sin. “Reason” is worldly and a failure to rely on the Holy Spirit. Three anecdotes:

    When I was a teenager and fairly new in the faith, my then pastor once told me that reason has no place in Christianity (I had always been an extremely logical and analytical person by nature).

    Early in the 21st century, a church elder told me that I shouldn’t study the Bible, but should just read it “devotionally.”

    Another elder in the same church said that he never studied when preparing to teach a Bible study or preach a sermon, but that he just let the Holy Spirit tell him what to say. (The result, of course, was evidence that it wasn’t the Holy Spirit speaking to him because he was all over the place and there was nothing coherent about what he was teaching or preaching).

    • zilch

      Reason was considered a sin by Martin Luther, too. He said “Wer … ein Christ sein will, der … steche seiner Vernunft die Augen aus.” “He who wants to be a Christian should put out the eyes of his reason”. He also said that reason was the Devil’s greatest whore. So there’s a good tradition of this line of “reasoning”.

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  • Lothars Sohn

    According to my own experience, it is the belief in Biblical inerrancy which drove young people away from God.

    In rare occasions they leave the Church behind owing to scientific facts (like those supporting evolution) incompatible with a litteralistic reading of Scripture.

    But most often they go away due to the undeniable atrocities one finds at some place of the OT, like God having ordered soldiers to kill babies and pregnant women alike.

    And in the latter case, it is very likely they will become furious militant atheists.

    If Christianity will not lose America I see just one solution: giving up inerrancy as a theory of inspiration and base our theologies on God’s perfection, as I try to lay out here:

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

    • zilch

      Lohthars Sohn- Grüße aus Wien!

      The problem with giving up inerrancy is the slippery slope: where do you draw the lines between “truth” and “fable” in Scripture? Of course, even inerrants have this problem, but they call it “exegesis” and “eisegesis”. It’s a real pickle.

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  • Jemima

    A great article that really shows why it’s important to “love the Lord your God with your heart, MIND and soul”. This is why I’m off to the RZIM Summer School next year in Vancouver — — with a hope to go a bit deeper in this stuff.

  • Chris

    Interesting article, however I strongly object to the way you pulled Bill Savage’s quote out of context. His entire article (the one you linked to) was on /political/ conservatives, not religious conservatives. Blatant mischaracterizations like that is what causes future problems for Christians such as myself.

  • Todd Tharp

    We all employ reason to fit our faith based premises into our experiences. Logic is simply a tool to help us reason with more precision and thus better apprehend truths. NO ONE is exempt from faith based beliefs about the nature of reality. ALL observation is theory laden – and sound theories are impossible without solid epistemology and an understanding that philosophic framing is ALWAYS shaping observation, even if the observer does not recognize that fact.

    Proverbs 1:2-7:
    To know wisdom and instruction, to perceive the words of understanding, To receive the instruction of wisdom, justice, judgment, and equity; to give prudence to the simple, to the young man knowledge and discretion— A wise man will hear and increase learning, and a man of understanding will attain wise counsel, to understand a proverb and an enigma, the words of the wise and their riddles.

    The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.